Gene Kelly Biography
Gene Kelly danced his way into our lives in many of the musicals of the 1950s. He was a dance legend and will be missed. Learn about the life of this prolific actor.
Eugene Curran Kelly was born on August 23, 1912, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the third of five children. By the time Gene was eight years old, he was starring with his three brothers and sister in show business. They were known as "The Five Kellys." They performed dance routines at amateur night on the vaudeville stage. Young Gene’s aspirations were with sports, not dancing. He enjoyed gymnastics, ice hockey, swimming, football, and baseball. His dream was to play professional baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was known to be able to take care of himself when bullies picked on him and his brother Fred on their way home from dance lessons. In the beginning, Gene intensely disliked dance lessons (which he had been taking since he was able to walk). In high school, he began to like dancing when it made him popular with the girls.
Gene and his brother Fred would go to vaudeville shows and watch the dancers. They would memorize the dance routines and learn the steps that would later take Gene Kelly to fame.
In 1932, Kelly founded The Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance. He had two studios in Pennsylvania: one in Pittsburgh and the other in Johnstown. His mother was the manager; his dad was the bookkeeper; and Gene, his sister Louise, and brother Fred were the dance instructors. Gene taught at both studios part time while he attended college. He also choreographed and directed shows at the Pittsburgh Playhouse as well as the shows at the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1933, Gene graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, where he majored in Economics. Because of the Great Depression, Gene worked at as many jobs as he could in order to put himself through school. After he graduated from college, Gene attended the University of Pittsburgh to study law. He found that he preferred dancing, so in 1938, he went to Broadway. His first Broadway job was as a dancer in the play "Leave It to Me," which was also Mary Martin’s debut.
In 1939, his next job was in the play "One for the Money." His career break was when he starred in "The Time of Your Life." The play ran for twenty-two weeks, and Gene won the Drama Critic’s Award that year as well.
In 1940, Gene was chosen for the male lead in the play "Pal Joey" in which he became a hit in the theatre. In the fall, while he was still performing on stage, Gene Kelly was offered a movie contract with David Selznick, which he accepted. He wouldn’t leave town without Betsy, a young woman to whom he had taught choreography the previous year while working on the play "Diamond Horseshoe." They were wed in September of 1941 before the couple left for Hollywood.
Gene Kelly's Hollywood debut was in the movie "For Me and My Gal," which also starred Judy Garland. Gene learned that dancing on film was completely different than dancing on stage in front of an audience. The film was a great success and Gene’s future in Hollywood opened up for him, especially in musicals.
Although his career was at its peak, Gene wanted to serve in the armed forces in World War II. Under MGM's protests (he was under contract with MGM at the time), Gene joined the Navy. He didn’t see active duty. Instead, he worked in the photographic division of the naval air force until 1946, when he was discharged.
When Gene returned to Hollywood, his career picked up where it had left off. He was cast in musicals like he was before he had left. It was as if his career never missed a beat. Although he had made many musicals, his most memorable role was in the movie "Singing in the Rain" which also starred Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds.
In the 1950s, Betsy and Gene were divorced after fifteen years of marriage. Gene was also restless and unsatisfied with his relationship with MGM as the company refused to loan him to other studios. When his contract expired in 1957, Gene did not renew his contract.
In 1960, Gene married Jeannie Coyne, who was his long-time dance assistant and former pupil from when he taught dance at his studio in Pittsburgh. They were married until 1973 when Jeannie died from cancer. Since he was alone to raise his two young children from this marriage, he refused to work on anything that would take him far from home.
After the 1960s, Gene was seen mostly on award shows. He did make one movie "Xanadu," which also starred actress/singer Olivia Newton-John.
In 1982, Gene received the Kennedy Center Honors, and in 1985, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.
Gene married writer Patricia Ward in 1990. For the last years of his life, he was hard at work on his autobiography, which was unfinished at the time of his death on February 2, 1996.